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A Reminder of Trump's Perverse Views of Our Military
The Atlantic's profile on General Mark Milley sheds new light on old stories illustrating the former president's callous attitude toward U.S. soldiers.
Eight years ago, when then presidential candidate Donald Trump scoffed at the notion that John McCain was a war hero, and mocked the former P.O.W.’s over his wartime capture, I (like countless others) believed he had just ended his own political career. As it turned out, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The guy who had received five military draft deferments during the Vietnam War (including one for alleged foot issues) enjoyed a bounce in the polls as a result. Trump’s numbers among Republicans continued to rise as he said he would make U.S. soldiers commit what amounted to war crimes by torturing terrorists and killing their families. By the time he belittled a Gold Star family just a few months ahead of the election, one could draw a few conclusions on Trump’s views of our military.
He seemed to look at U.S. combat soldiers as kind of a caricature: trained, unquestioning killers carrying out a president’s vengeance. And if they couldn’t (or could no longer) serve in that capacity — whether it be due to capture, injury, or death — that meant they were weak and unworthy of admiration and respect.
If you think that sounds like a harsh, unfair critique, I recommend reading a new in-depth piece in The Atlantic on General Mark Milley, who served as President Trump’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the second half of Trump’s term. The profile explores numerous incidents Milley witnessed that only support the thesis. We had heard some of the stories before, but in less detail and with some doubts of their accuracy. But the instances documented in the piece are firsthand accounts from Milley and others.
A particularly egregious incident occurred in late September of 2019, when Milley had chosen Luis Avila, a severely wounded Army captain who’d completed five combat tours, to sing “God Bless America” at Milley’s welcome ceremony. Avila, who’d lost his leg in Afghanistan, and had suffered multiple heart attacks, strokes, and brain damage from his injuries, was at one point having trouble with his wheelchair on the soft, damp ground outside. The wheelchair nearly tipped over.
From the piece:
Milley’s wife, Hollyanne, ran to help Avila, as did Vice President Mike Pence. After Avila’s performance, Trump walked over to congratulate him, but then said to Milley, within earshot of several witnesses, “Why do you bring people like that here? No one wants to see that, the wounded.” Never let Avila appear in public again, Trump told Milley.
This instance was part of a pattern described in the book, The Divider, by Susan Glasser and Peter Baker. Trump reportedly didn’t want wheelchair-bound soldiers with missing limbs at events celebrating our military. This included a July 4 parade in 2018, where Trump told his chief of staff John Kelly, “I don’t want any wounded guys” because “It doesn’t look good for me.”
“[Trump] couldn’t fathom people who served their nation honorably,” explained Kelly, who was interviewed for The Atlantic piece. As the profile describes, the former Marine general has contended since leaving the administration that “Trump has a contemptuous view of the military, and that this contempt made it extraordinarily difficult to explain to Trump such concepts as honor, sacrifice, and duty.”
For Trump, what mattered militarily were optics, specifically appearing strong and dominant. It’s what drove his military-parade fixation, and even some of his hiring. He reportedly chose Milley because he liked Milley’s stout, broad-shouldered appearance (he looked the part of a military leader), and he tapped James Mattis to be his defense secretary because he had heard Mattis’s nickname was “Mad Dog.”
But what really got Trump’s juices flowing were renegade soldiers, the type that committed war crimes.
From the piece:
In November 2019, Trump decided to intervene in three different cases that had been working their way through the military justice system. In the most infamous case, the Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher had been found guilty of posing with the corpse of an Islamic State prisoner. Though Gallagher was found not guilty of murder, witnesses testified that he’d stabbed the prisoner in the neck with a hunting knife. (Gallagher’s nickname was “Blade.”) In an extraordinary move, Trump reversed the Navy’s decision to demote him in rank. Trump also pardoned a junior Army officer, Clint Lorance, convicted of second-degree murder for ordering soldiers to shoot three unarmed Afghans, two of whom died. In the third case, a Green Beret named Mathew Golsteyn was accused of killing an unarmed Afghan he suspected was a bomb maker for the Taliban and then covering up the killing. At a rally in Florida that month, Trump boasted, “I stuck up for three great warriors against the deep state.”
Trump also decided, above the heads of a Navy review board, that Gallagher should retain his Trident insignia (a coveted insignia worn by U.S. SEALs). Milley explained to Trump that the intervention was entirely inappropriate and bad for Navy morale.
Trump’s response, from the piece:
Trump called Gallagher a hero and said he didn’t understand why he was being punished.
“Because he slit the throat of a wounded prisoner,” Milley said.
“The guy was going to die anyway,” Trump said.
Milley answered, “Mr. President, we have military ethics and laws about what happens in battle. We can’t do that kind of thing. It’s a war crime.” Trump answered that he didn’t understand “the big deal.” He went on, “You guys”—meaning combat soldiers—“are all just killers. What’s the difference?”
What’s the difference?
Trump has long drawn terrible moral and ethical equivalencies involving our military, and his lack of compassion is almost legendary. In other words, no one should be at all surprised by any of these stories. Nonetheless, they’re worth documenting for the historical record, as they would be for any president. They’re also relevant to our current politics, as Americans are considering who to support in next year’s primary and general elections.
Trump defenders would argue that more deep-dive pieces should be written about President Biden’s chaotic withdrawl from Afghanistan, which included U.S. military casualties. I totally agree.
Any time we can get a clearer picture of our choices for commander-in-chief of our armed forces, that’s a good thing.